MICHELE NORRIS, host:
We're going to hear about John McCain in his home state of Arizona now. McCain's independent streak has often put him at odds with Arizona's hardcore conservatives often over the issue of immigration. But as Arizona votes on Super Tuesday, some of that animosity may be set aside.
NPR's Ted Robbins has the story.
TED ROBBINS: As a favorite son, you might expect Arizona's Republican leadership to support John McCain regardless of the issues. But to some of them, the favorite son is more like the family's black sheep, especially when it comes to immigration.
State Representative RUSSELL PEARCE (Republican, Arizona State Legislature): So, yeah, very upset, very disappointed with John. I think John is a hero in a lot of ways, but he's misguided on this.
ROBBINS: That's state representative Russell Pearce, the head of the House Appropriations Committee and author of Arizona's strict new law imposing sanctions on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. Pearce is supporting Mitt Romney, as are a number of Republican activists, especially in the Phoenix area where the majority of Arizona Republicans live.
Arizona State University professor and political pollster Bruce Merrill.
Professor BRUCE MERRILL (Arizona State University; Political Pollster): Maricopa County Republicans had a convention here about a week ago. And they had a straw poll, and it showed that they supported John McCain fifth.
ROBBINS: Not only that, this group of party activists also took a poll of which Republican candidate they found most objectionable, and McCain came in first. This rift is long-standing and rooted in McCain's refusal to tow the party line, not just on immigration, but on other issues. For instance, he voted against President Bush's tax cuts and opposed the administration on interrogation methods, like waterboarding.
But immigration really tears it. Hardliners are angry with McCain's support of what they call amnesty, a guest worker program and what he calls earned citizenship. McCain has balanced his position during the campaign, saying the border needs to be secured first, but he's also been rejecting the amnesty label since this interview before the campaign began.
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): This is a $2,000 fine. This is six years of having to work before becoming even eligible for green cards. That is - it is no more amnesty than I am a Martian.
ROBBINS: Some would argue that it's the party activists who are from another planet. Bruce Merrill looks to the polls for an answer.
Prof. MERRILL: The average Republican that, you know, it's pretty far removed from politics in many ways, has always respected him. He polls very high. And when we ran him against his nearest and only competitor here, Romney, he beat Romney two to one.
ROBBINS: Kennan Strann(ph) describes himself as a typical Arizona Republican. He owns a McDonald's in north Phoenix and supports a more moderate immigration policy.
Mr. KENNAN STRANN (Arizona Resident): My opinion is the average Republican is not to throw everybody out of here. I think it's to, let's have some reform (unintelligible), close the border down, and then get some control.
ROBBINS: And have a guest worker program?
Mr. STRANN: Me, personally?
Mr. STRANN: Kennan Strann? Yeah, absolutely.
ROBBINS: Hard-line anti-immigration voters could make it close in Arizona next Tuesday, especially if total turnout is low. But with McCain now the national frontrunner, it's likely most Arizona Republicans will want to be with a favorite son.
Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.